Pirates of the Florida State League
On November 10, 2009, the Pittsburgh Pirates purchased the Sarasota Reds franchise in the Florida State League and moved it north to Bradenton.
The Reds were no longer interested in Florida because they’ve moved their spring training/minor league complex to Arizona for 2010. The Lynchburg franchise in the Carolina League, which was the Pirates’ Advanced Class-A affiliate, will now be a Reds’ affiliate.
As more baseball organizations relocate from Florida to Arizona, it’s led some to question the continued viability of the Grapefruit League, the spring training circuit for teams based here in the Sunshine State. The Dodgers and Indians preceded the Reds in recent years, leaving fifteen clubs in Florida. Arizona’s advantage is that its fifteen clubs are all located around Phoenix, while Florida’s clubs are scattered about the state.
One rumor persists that the Chicago Cubs might relocate from Mesa, Arizona to Naples, Florida. This probably has more to do with the Cubs’ lease on Hohokam Stadium, which allows them to opt out in 2010. Major league organizations often seek “opt out” clauses in long-term leases as a means of squeezing their municipal landlords for improvements, financed (of course) by the taxpayers. Hohokam is rather antiquated by modern major league baseball complex standards. It has only two practice fields, limited parking and little room for expansion. The minor league complex is about three blocks south at Fitch Park. These days, clubs prefer an integrated complex to seamlessly move players from one facility to another. Naples, presumably, would be a clean slate.
Most Florida State League clubs operate out of their parent club’s spring training complex. The twelve FSL teams and their parent clubs are (those in the parent club’s park are in bold):
|Bradenton Marauders||Pittsburgh Pirates|
|Brevard County Manatees||Milwaukee Brewers|
|Charlotte Stone Crabs||Tampa Bay Rays|
|Clearwater Threshers||Philadelphia Phillies|
|Daytona Cubs||Chicago Cubs|
|Dunedin Blue Jays||Toronto Blue Jays|
|Ft. Myers Miracle||Minnesota Twins|
|Jupiter Hammerheads||Florida Marlins|
|Lakeland Flying Tigers||Detroit Tigers|
|Palm Beach Cardinals||St. Louis Cardinals|
|St. Lucie Mets||New York Mets|
|Tampa Yankees||New York Yankees|
If the Chicago Cubs move to Naples, it creates a scenario where they might want to move their FSL affiliation to Naples too. To do that, they’d have to acquire an FSL franchise. The Pirates bought Sarasota from the Reds and moved it to Bradenton, but none of the other organizations based in their own complex seem inclined any time soon to leave as Cincinnati did.
That would leave the two teams not playing in their parent club’s park — the Daytona Cubs and the Brevard County Manatees.
The straightforward solution is to move the Daytona franchise to Naples, but Daytona is one of the historic franchises in the league. Daytona has been in and out of the FSL since 1920. Since 1993, it’s been a Cubs affiliate. Jackie Robinson Ballpark is historic because of its namesake; according to their web site, “The park was renamed Jackie Robinson Ballpark in 1989 as the stadium served as host to the first racially integrated game in baseball history,” although that’s not quite true as their were many semi-pro, independent and barnstorming games in the early 20th Century that were more or less integrated. Daytona Beach was the first Florida town to permit Robinson to play with his white Dodgers teammates, during 1946 spring training.
In any case, should the Daytona franchise’s owner choose not to sell, that leaves only the Manatees. The Brevard franchise could relocate to Naples, then switch affiliations to the Cubs. An affiliation switch couldn’t happen, though, until the Manatees’ Player Development Contract (PDC) with Milwaukee expires after the 2010 season.
Daytona drew an average 2,425 fans per game in 2009, while Brevard drew only 1,183. That’s a slight improvement from 1,035 in 2008, but it’s still down significantly from 2,151, the last year the Marlins were in town before swapping with Montreal in Jupiter. The best average attendance since then was 1,822 in 2004, the year before the Expos left and the Brewers replaced them.
The Manatees sublease Space Coast Stadium from the Washington Nationals, formerly the Expos. They changed their Advanced Class-A affiliation to Potomac in the Carolina League in 2005 when the Expos moved to D.C., so there’s no chance the Nats would put an FSL team in Brevard if the Manatees leave.
Just speculating, but another scenario might be the transfer of two franchises to the FSL from the California League. Minor League Baseball considered transferring two Cal League franchises, Bakersfield and High Desert, to the Carolina League after the 2008 season. That idea fell through, apparently because new ballparks weren’t available.
If Daytona or Brevard moved to Naples, that franchise could be replaced by one from the Cal League, although to keep schedules balanced in both leagues two franchises would have to move to Florida. East Coast teams such as the Rays and Red Sox had to play in the Cal League in recent years because no Florida or Carolina option was available.
Should the Cubs move to Naples, it could trigger a cascade of events in the Florida State League perhaps unanticipated so far by the public. But it would reverse the slow migration west of major league clubs heading for Arizona.
UPDATE January 10, 2010 — Click here to read an article on MLB.com about the history and movement between the Grapefruit League and Cactus League.
The article describes the Reds’ new start-of-the-art complex in Goodyear:
The Reds’ $23 million complex features six full practice fields plus two half-fields for infield work, and space for agility drills. There are multiple bullpens and covered batting cages. The facility also features a 43,000 square foot, two-story building for offices, clubhouses and rehabilitation.
Contrast that with what I wrote above about the Cubs’ limited facility in Mesa, and you can understand why they’re looking around.